Touring a Vegas home

Las Vegas. Sunny skies with highs near sixty and lows near freezing. After corresponding with real estate companies, most of which turned out to be automated systems, C. and I spent the day touring homes for rent. Most tours are self-guided now, with robots texting lockbox codes. 

Vegas architecture hides from the sun. Blank walls of concrete and stucco face the south, with windows punched in odd places to allow some light but not so much that it will cook everyone inside. Perfect squares of sky look like a James Turrell installation. As we consider each room, there is much discussion of orientation.

I recently learned most Christian churches sit along an east-west axis, with the entrance to the west and the altar to the east. In most cathedrals, stained glass scenes from the Old Testament are on the north wall, and moments from the New Testament cover the south. “This was a theological statement,” write Gabriele and Perry in The Bright Ages. “In the northern hemisphere, the south-facing side of any building receives more sun, so the New Testament would be illuminated even as the Old Testament remained in the shadows.” 

As we continue our search, I find myself studying the sun’s path through windows more closely, hunting not only for moments of shade and aesthetic delight but metaphysical propaganda.

On the edge of Vegas, 2022

Las Vegas. The Pacific Time Zone is turning me into a morning person, and I do not like it. When I check my watch, I do a double-take, thinking it must be near midnight when it’s only half past eight. The sun goes down at four o’clock here, which does not help. I feel elderly and feeble, yawning and drowsing at ten o’clock. This morning I woke before seven and had no idea what to do with myself. I tried to work on the novel, but my brain was still filled with cobwebs. So I opened my inbox. The Eastern Seaboard had been sending me emails for hours, so I had plenty to do until noon.

As far as timekeeping goes, I came across this great link on Mastodon to a literary clock.

After another dim sum lunch, C. and I began to search for a place to rent. We want a box at the edge of the sprawl with a big room with hardwood floors where C. can paint and a small room where I can write. After so many years spent writing in libraries, lobbies, and cafes, the prospect of my own office feels like a luxury, even a little obscene. But the possibility of a dedicated place where I can tack index cards to the wall like a real writer gives me a happy little buzz.

Hundreds of listings cluttered our screens, all variations on the same tan townhouse. We gave them names to keep them straight. Tomorrow we’re seeing Crazy Stairs, Fake Ash Zen, and Astroturf Fire.

Severed Heads – We Have Come to Bless the House

City Slab Horror | Ink Records, 1985 | Bandcamp
Las Vegas yard

Las Vegas. The line for the first dim sum joint spilled into the parking lot, so C. and I drove two blocks down and went to another spot with excellent bean curd and taro puffs the size of your fist. The exterior was a hellacious strip mall in the 1990s style; the interior had picture windows overlooking a soothing vista of acacia trees and Italian cypress with pink mountains in the distance. This felt like a metaphor.

We tooled around the city’s perimeter, marveling at its sharp edges. A neighborhood is backed against a mountainside. A retaining wall shields a grocery store from the desert rolling behind it. The parkways are pristine and feel particularly futuristic at night. Instead of dead grass and fallen leaves, topiaries and swept gravel fill the medians like an endless zen garden.

Just before midnight, I stepped into the small yard of the house we rented and savored the unfamiliar flora and stillness. There’s something so tranquil about an illuminated palm tree, a science-fictional kind of calm.

C. looking cool as she gets into the car after photographing some dramatic scenery.

Woke up in Grand Junction and kept pushing west. We dipped down to Moab because the name rang a faint bell. The mountains gave way to Martian cliffs, and I enjoyed delicious French toast at the Canyon Steak & Waffle House. The people around us looked healthy and ready for adventure, but we weren’t about to pay $30 to enter the park and look at some arches. We returned to the interstate.

A small green sign said No Services Next 106 miles. It’s the most desolate stretch of interstate in the USA. A spray of clouds sent the light pouring down over the cliffs. “It looks religious over there,” said C.

As we crossed the Nevada state line, fireworks bloomed in the parking of a Chevron station. We made good time and hit Vegas a night earlier than scheduled. “Warm Leatherette” played on the dashboard as a sea of light appeared in the valley like a hallucination, and we booked a relatively cheap room on the strip. There are televisions in the bathroom because we should not be alone with our thoughts, and I felt very modern, watching protests in China while I showered in a glossy Vegas hotel.

The Normal – Warm Leatherette

Mute, 1978 | More
Somewhere in Colorado

When I woke up this morning, I struggled to remember the state I was in. Then I looked out the window and saw the Rocky Mountains in daylight. 

C. and I needed a break from the road, so we enjoyed the Denver Art Museum this afternoon. As I wandered through an exhibition of Flemish art, I better understood their neurotic obsession with glistening grapes, intricate lace, and water beads on lobster tails. They believed every facet of the world belonged to a divine logic; the closer we look, the nearer we might come to God. 

An exhibition of Japanese women calligraphers was filled with exquisite work and shocking stories. After her stepfather chopped off her arms, Ōishi Junkyō taught herself to paint with her mouth. When a monk told Ryōnen Gensō she was too beautiful to become a nun, she burned her face with an iron and wrote a poem: In this living world / the body I give up and burn / would be wretched / if I thought of myself as / anything but firewood.

A fingernail moon rose over the Rockies as we crossed the Continental Divide via the Eisenhower Tunnel, the highest point on the Interstate Highway System at 11,158 feet. We coasted through Vail to admire wealthy families in nice sweaters before pushing west to Colorado Springs, where we had an excellent meal at a Nepalese restaurant surrounded by Christmas lights.

Somewhere in Kansas

Thanksgiving Day. We woke to the distinct, slightly melancholic stillness of a holiday morning somewhere in the middle of America. Even the International House of Pancakes was closed. We sped west into Kansas on an empty interstate, and heavy rain gave way to blinding sun over the plains.

From the passenger seat, C. entertained me with tantalizing facts. The world’s largest Amoco sign was back in St. Louis. The first Pizza Hut is in Wichita. A bone from St. John the Baptist’s finger sits in a museum in Kansas City.

The flatness gets to you—the eye darts around for any point of interest or frame of reference. A lone tree becomes exciting. A sign for the National Agro-Defense Facility fires the imagination. As night fell, the fields of wind turbines turned sinister. Hundreds of red lights blinked on the horizon, pulsing to the drumbeat that filled the car, and I felt like I was in a music video that I wanted to last forever.

After twelve hours on the road, we crashed out in a hotel by the Denver airport. 764 miles to Vegas.

Ike Yard – Night After Night

1980-1982 Collected | Acute Records | Bandcamp
Somewhere in Illinois, 2022

Missouri. 2017 miles from Ohio to Vegas. We cut across Indiana and Illinois and sped through a sea of dead grass and November browns. The signs we passed felt like chapters from one big story: automatic weapon rentals, bulk ammo, and lawyers. Wrongful death? Call Ken! Mid-season leagues are now forming at the laser-tag facility on the south side of Indianapolis. An exit sign for the Ronald Reagan Ameriplex Parkway.  

We hit St. Louis too late to visit Cementland, an unfinished amusement park at an abandoned cement factory. Its creator, Bob Cassilly, died while working on the site. They initially thought he was killed in a bulldozer accident; a medical examiner later concluded he had been beaten to death. America is filled with strange dreams and violent endings.

Dinner at Cracker Barrel, where C. and I discussed whether coherent new styles in art and music are possible now that our screens have erased the technological, geographic, and temporal constraints that yielded everything from Dada to Detroit techno. The cold/new/minimal wave tracks from the early 80s that are soundtracking our journey still sound more future-forward than most music today. Perhaps movements are a relic of the 20th century. Maybe I’m just getting old. But I enjoyed discussing Tristan Tzara, Simon Reynolds, Basic Channel, and vaporwave while eating Grandpa’s Country Fried Breakfast.

Tonight we’re staying at a Holiday Inn Express on Mid-American Industrial Road fifty miles east of Kansas City. It’s nice. There’s an Arby’s across the street. 1456 miles to Vegas.

John Foxx – Underpass

Metamatic | Virgin, 1980 | More
Scene from my suitcase: sweaters, gloves, nicotine gum, reading light, and an optimistic number of books. It’s also good to being measuring tape when visiting new places.

Ohio. The road trip kicks off tomorrow, and my packing has been delayed by a much more critical matter: putting together a road trip playlist. I’m calling it Cold Interstate, and I have to say, it’s stellar: nine hours of coldwoven synthetic tracks for the motorway, including Suicide, Cybotron, Tropic of Cancer, The Normal, Sisters of Mercy, Thomas Brinkmann, Plastikman, some Liquid Swords instrumentals, Chris & Cosey, Ectomorph, Tuxedomoon, an Ectomorph remix of Tuxedomoon, and four remixes of Shari Vari.

Cobbling this mix together has me in a metro Detroit state of mind and, more specifically, an Electrifying Mojo state of mind. Our screens advertise better connectivity, but they can’t hold a candle to the communion of thousands of radios across the city tuned to the same station on a Saturday night while a voice tells everyone to flash their headlights and porchlights. I recently came across this reflection on Mojo’s legacy: “Mojo flew into Detroit every night on a spaceship,” writes Nkrumah Steward. “As his ship descended, he would say, ‘Hello Detroit,’ then he would gradually get more specific, ‘I see Pam over at Belle Isle, hello Pam,’ or he would comment on how he could see the planes coming in at Metro Airport or maybe a traffic jam down on I-94. It was so fucking cool you just have no idea.”

I’m feeling sentimental tonight like it’s 1995 and I’m smoking clove cigarettes while speeding down I-75 to the Packard plant or Saint Andrews Hall. It’s a pleasant sensation, this tension between nostalgia in the rearview and motoring into the future for a possible new life in the desert.

Here’s a cold highway classic from ’94 that begins with two minutes of vapor before giving way to a glossy machine that builds and rebuilds while neon drips across the hood. This was the first Plastikman record I bought, so it holds a special place in my heart. Like Dean Martin or Jefferson Airplane for another generation, these are my oldies.

Plastikman – Konception

Musik | Plus 8, 1994 | Bandcamp
Ohio, 2022

Ohio. A sunny Monday in the Middle West with unremarkable temperatures, and it’s one of those days when it feels like the world’s got its hands in my pockets. Spent an hour on the phone haggling with health insurance, then car insurance, and I lost both arguments. It takes so much work to be a person.

Meanwhile in strike land, where The New School spends only 14% of its budget on the part-time professors who make up 87% of its faculty, the university’s lawyer is trying to bust our union by forcing a vote on a contract that pits those with health insurance against those without. Amazon, Walmart, and Starbucks use these hardball tactics. Not higher education. This could set a chilling precedent.

This evening I ran beneath an overpass with faded graffiti that read like a vanished wish: planet over profit

But some happy news: I’m enjoying Mastodon. I found Michael Donaldson over there, and he turned me on to a nice sludgy Joy Division cover, which is the whole point of social media. 

Tonight I’m making motions toward packing for our road trip. So far, I have two items on my shopping list: ice scraper and nicotine gum.

Sunday night in Ohio

Ohio. A brittle Sunday with temperatures in the 20s. The part-time faculty strike against The New School continues, and the administration has hired a union-busting law firm. This afternoon I phone banked and attended online bargaining meetings, and all I can say is our union leaders are doing the Lord’s work.

Last night I managed to find my way onto Mastodon. I didn’t think I had the appetite for another social media channel, but when my friend O. mentioned it had the same spirit as the early 00s information superhighway, I decided to log on. And he’s right: it was heartening to find some familiar avatars in a space blessedly free of creepy advertisements, promotional horseshit, and the other grift mechanics to which we’ve become accustomed. Mastodon feels oddly wholesome, perhaps even too wholesome, as if a non-commodified space like this shouldn’t even exist nowadays. It’s like some mythical creature from the past has wandered into the middle of a twelve-land expressway. I’m not yet sure what I’ll do over there, but here I am.

This week’s edition of Sam Valenti IV’s Herb Sundays series features Veronica Vasicka, a diligent archivist of jet-black 1970s and 1980s synthetics and the founder of one of my favorite imprints, Minimal Wave. If you’re not familiar, start with the Minimal Wave Tapes, then dig into the Lost, Found, Hidden, and Bedroom tapes.

The soundtrack has been sorted for our 2000-mile drive in three days. Now C. and I can focus on packing.

Ohio, 2022

Ohio. Went for an ugly run in a ten-degree wind chill. I cursed loudly, frightened passersby, and my skin was angry and red beneath my wooly sweater. Ten degrees might be my threshold unless I invest in a special outfit.

Meanwhile, a childlike billionaire is grinding Twitter into the dirt. Whether this is intentional remains unclear, but I think he’s on the right track. Grind it to dust and salt the earth. I loved Twitter back when it didn’t matter, circa 2008-2015. Its pointlessness was the point: an ambient network of people eating breakfast, talking junk, and finding delight in the mundane. Then some nitwit slapped a scoreboard on it and transformed us into cult leaders with followers (rather than readers) who chased the virtual currency of hearts. We convinced ourselves our tweets were important, newsworthy, career-making, or, god forbid, agents for social change, and it made us crazy. Myself included. I tapped out six months ago when I finally admitted I was writing and thinking in a way I did not enjoy. (My station is now a rickety automated feed for this blog; for some sentimental reason, I can’t bring myself to delete my account.)

An advertising platform that teems with voices stripped of context and complexity will never improve the fabric of public life. But as they say in recovery, the persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Addiction feels like the right metaphor: on a social level, we know the outrage mechanics of Twitter aren’t good for us, and yet . . . so here’s some wishful thinking: I hope the childlike billionaire shuts the whole thing down and announces this was his plan all along. He would save face, and history will judge him kindly as the man who removed the poison from the well.

Went to the cinema and saw The Menu, another entry in the burgeoning eat-the-rich genre (Triangle of Sadness, Parasite, Ready or Not, Knives Out, The Hunt, etc) that works as an exercise in capitalist-angst-ventilation rather than imagining alternatives. The first half was a near-perfect escalation that flirts with the surreal; the last act needed a point of view. But it was worth the price of a matinee ticket for the taco night scene, and I’m a sucker for people behaving poorly in glossy architecture on a remote island, e.g., Ex Machina.

Tonight C. reminded me today would have been my mom’s birthday, thanks to an automated reminder in her calendar that she never deleted. Strange, these new digital ghosts.

I’m no longer hyper-attuned to the dates of my parents’ births and deaths. Part of me feels negligent; the other part thinks this is progress: I can carry them with me without fixating on beginnings and endings. My mom would have turned seventy today. And now that I remember, I’m unsure how to observe the date except to say a prayer and be grateful she was my mom.

Ohio, 2022

Ohio. Another sleepless night for reasons unknown. My bedtime programming hums with the static of insomnia. All the President’s Men. William Gibson. The history of medieval Europe. Cassette tapes of a Buddhist nun. But I’m learning to enjoy the extra time to brood. Acceptance is the answer.

This afternoon I finished migrating this internet station—and eight other websites—from the world’s worst hosting company to a new home. It feels zippier here. Untangling my nameservers, redirects, feeds, forwarders, and security certificates felt much like the jittery fever logic of insomnia: the knotty plumbing below the surface, the systems that work only when they go unnoticed.

Five days until C. and I drive into the desert. Illinois and Indiana look like fangs. I should go to bed.